DOING TIME ON PAPER STREET
By Mike White
Once, quite by chance, there was an extraordinary old universe. And it was filled with matter and magnificence; with worlds and wonder, with moons and magic. And moving through this universe was a familiar Old World of cities and streets; of trees and cars. There, in a high class apartment, on an Ikea chair, was a boy. And in this boy's head was locked an untold story as extraordinary as anything that old universe had ever seen...
FIGHT CLUB piqued my film theorist sensibilities. More than any other film of the late 90s, FIGHT CLUB impressed me with its craft and its substance. It improves with each viewing. But one shot, more than any other, caught my eye. It scarred my mind like a chemical burn.
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and the film's narrator (Ed Norton) visit Tyler's abode for the first time. As they walk down the street the camera lingers on the name of Tyler's street. This shot helps explain the name of Tyler Durden's business, The Paper Street Soap Company. Yet, such information could be regarded as simply incidental. There's no reason to stay focused on the sign for so long...unless there's something more going on.
There are no "throw away" shots in FIGHT CLUB. Everything has its place and there's a place for everything. But that damned shot of the Paper Street sign kept gnawing at me. Why was it on screen for so long and why was it bothering me so much? What was the secret of Paper Street?
"The things you own end up owning you," says Tyler Durden about the versatile solutions for modern living that FIGHT CLUB's protagonist lost in a tragic apartment explosion. Between this line and Paper Street I had the clues I needed. Yet, I needed more.
Then came the last gentle shove that pushed the solution to my problem into the light. Reading Chuck Palahniuk's original Fight Club novel, pushed the answer into my brain through my left ear.
In the house on Paper Street, our narrator gains a "name." Rather, to be accurate, the book gains a literary conceit of giving an unnamed narrator a method of identification. The narrator finds Tyler's house stuffed with teetering stacks of magazines, including the homey American companion, "Reader's Digest." "In the oldest magazines, there's a series of articles where organs in the human body talk about themselves in the first person: I am Joe's Prostrate." "This was just a way of getting the emotional state into the narrative without having to say, 'I felt so happy, I felt so angry,'" says author Palahniuk of this device.
The story goes that in order to avoid legal entanglements in the filming of FIGHT CLUB, "Reader's Digest" couldn't be mention, nor could the name "Joe" be used. Instead, the narrator comes to refer to himself as "Jack." His name could have just as easily been "John," or "Jake," or "Jehovah." But "Jack" it was.
Jack living on Paper Street... The words got closer and closer until they finally clicked into place and I was taken back to an evening of pumpkin carving as a boy. While the seeds baked, I sat entranced in my usual spot-in front of the television set, soaking up my "education" while my young innocence dwindled away. In my mind's eye, I saw the oddball double feature of the night, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and the bizarre cartoon adaptation of Peter, Paul, and Mary's song, "Puff the Magic Dragon."
Suddenly, I am privy to Jack's obscure origin.
The song is familiar enough that I won't delve into the gory details of the folk tune with its vaguely narcotic overtones. The cartoon employed the tune's idea of a magic dragon visiting a boy in incredibly loose terms.
The boy is Jackie Draper, a space monkey about to be shot past the moons and the magic and to unleash Mayhem on the familiar Old World of cities and streets. We first see him sitting quietly, surrounded by his mother, father, and three learned doctors. Add a couple of sheep and a donkey and you've got the perfect nativity scene. "We have concluded our consultation and find that your son will not, nor cannot speak, communicate, nor relate in any way to the world around him...Alas, the case is hopeless." Comatose and condemned, Jackie soon finds his power animal.
At that very moment, a face flashes by outside his window. "I've come to help you, Jackie. To help you help yourself." It wasn't a penguin but a dragon named "Puff." His name could have just as easily been "Tyler Durden." But "Puff" it was.
In the story, Puff finds a large piece of drawing paper, a crayon, and a pair of scissors. He goes about his magic business in a way both magic and businesslike. He tacks the drawing paper to the wall. Then, using the crayon, he draws a picture of Jackie Draper. Using the scissors he snips the crayon drawing of Jackie Draper free from the rest of the paper and brings it over to the boy. He might as well have been molding cookie dough or white bread.
"Jackie Draper, this is Jackie Paper," said Puff, introducing the real boy to the cutout. "Now, Jackie Draper, I'm going to borrow the 'living-thing' from inside you and place it inside Jackie Paper." The little smile froze on Jackie's lips and Puff realized he was frightened. Puff took the fragile 'living-thing' from Jackie Draper's left ear and rushed it over to Jackie Paper. With a gentle shove, he pushed it into Jackie Paper. The cutout child suddenly took on a rounded form and came to life.
"Am I all better?" asked Jackie Paper.
Puff chuckled playfully...Tyler cackled maniacally. "We'll see. To be truly better you must make a journey with me. Impossible for Jackie Draper, but for Jackie Paper - he can go anywhere, so long as it is magic."
And off to Honah Lee they go. A magical trip all the way to the bottom. Giving up everything. Shaving monkeys and molesting performance artists. There is no fear. There are no distractions. Jackie Paper grows stronger. He's not cut out of paper, he's carved out of wood.
Puff is Jackie's personal support group. The journey they take cures the boy of what ails him-fear. And when they return to Jackie's bedroom, the boy doesn't have to go to any drastic measures to rid himself of Puff in order to regain sovereignty of his sanity.
"As I promised, you helped yourself. And, in helping yourself, Jackie, you helped me. And now it is time to be truly brave, to face growing up, to be Jackie Draper." Puff gets out of the way for "other toys." He's fixed the wrongly timed gears in Jackie Draper's head and returns the boy safely to his Mum and Dad. In FIGHT CLUB, "Jack" has no other "toys." He has set the (dragon) scales to zero.
Puff plucks the 'living thing' from Jackie Paper and tucks it carefully back into Jackie Draper's left ear. On the other hand, is he tucking it into the exit wound from a self-inflicted gunshot? Having served his purpose, Jackie Paper is never heard from again. He's a space monkey floating aimlessly in orbit, sacrificing himself for the greater good.
Some of the above text was appropriated from Puff The Magic Dragon by Romeo Muller